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Lessons From The NFL Bullying Scandal


Time now for sports.


GONYEA: The basketball and hockey seasons are just getting going, and the big story in sports is still the drama inside the Miami Dolphins. We're referring, of course, to the bullying of second-year lineman Jonathon Martin, by veteran offensive lineman Richie Incognito. The story revealed a history of racial slurs.

Well, joining us now to discuss the NFL's locker room culture is Howard Bryant, of ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He's in the studios of New England Public Radio. Welcome, Howard.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Don. How are you?

GONYEA: Good, good. So a lot of what has been said about these allegations is that they tell us something larger about macho culture, and race and ethnicity. Do you think that's right?

BRYANT: Yeah, I do. And at the beginning of the week, I think that one of the big issues was actual semantics, this conversation of bullying; where when you think about bullying, you think of something that happens in a schoolyard when actually, what I really felt was it's not bullying. This is harassment. This is something where you've got a player receiving text messages and phone calls and such, from outside of his house. And if we were using different terminology, I think people would have taken it more seriously.

By the end of the week, however, this was a real conversation about the male code, about fitting in and not fitting in, about class, about race, about power, masculinity; what it means to be a man, in terms of now we're seeing that Incognito was holding meetings at strip clubs and that sort of locker room male culture where you're going to fit in to some of these really kind of silly - to me - some of these conventions. But once again, they are used as barometers inside that locker room, to decide whether you're with us or whether you're not.

GONYEA: And it seems important to note here that these two guys were not of equal status within the organization. Martin was the rookie.

BRYANT: And that's the power dynamic as well. There's a fair amount of rookie hazing. Every sport does it. In baseball, at the end of the season and on at least one road trip - I think one of the last road trips of the season - the players, you know, rookie players are, you know, they're forced to like, wear costumes - like Halloween, usually. You know, you have to dress up as a ballerina or something, and walk through the airport; or do something in public like that, to sort of - it's a rite of passage, and a lot of it is kind of silly. And it just proves that you belong, and you're supposed to take it in a good-natured fashion.

And then some players reject it, and I think Dez Bryant - with the Cowboys - a couple years ago refused to carry the water of a veteran; and he was taken to task for not playing along, and not taking it in the right spirit. And so there's certainly a power dynamic there. And Incognito having rookies pay 15-, $30,000 for dinners - I mean, this is the kind of stuff that if you reject it, then people are looking at you like you're in the enemy camp when actually, maybe it's a practice - or definitely, it's a practice that shouldn't exist in the first place.

GONYEA: Are we talking here about something specific to football locker room culture? I know in baseball, we see the relief pitchers being forced to carry - you know - Hello Kitty backpacks out on the field. But is there something football-specific here?

BRYANT: Well, yeah, there's something football-specific but actually, I think what it really is, it's this conversation, this evolving conversation of what it means to be a man in a culture where being physical is being more and more discredited in a lot of ways. We're not a physical society, whether it's in manufacturing or whether we're talking about football.

It's more of an intellectual society. However, there is this area for physicality and where those lines are constantly moving, they're constantly changing. And when you have something like this take place - one of the big questions that makes it a football conversation is the shock that people have that things like this go on in the locker room.

And when I talk to players all the time, they'll tell me, sure, coaches have always told us to toughen up players that they think are soft. The fact that Jonathan Martin left the team and made this public is one of the big things that the players are sort of blanching at; and it opens up the larger question of how much about the NFL do you really want to know?

GONYEA: Just quickly, what about the NFL brand? They were already dealing with bad news about concussions. More bad news.

BRYANT: Yeah, it's a bad year for the NFL; and I think the big issue with them, actually, is that the NFL is trying to appeal to mothers out there that this is a sport that you want your kids to play. First, you're going to end up with dementia. We're seeing that happen with Tony Dorsett and Mark Duper now. And then on top of that, you have to worry about your kid being pushed around by some 320-pound guy who wants you to go to strip clubs or you're not part of the deal. So they've got a lot of fence- mending to do, in terms of their image.

GONYEA: Howard Bryant, of ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Thanks, Howard.

BRYANT: Thank you.


GONYEA: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.